I shoveled show because I was angry about Vicki's ears. 'It's mutilation,' I said; 'besides you'll look like you just arrived from the old country.' 'I'm forty years old,' Vicki said, putting the Frosted Mini-Wheats back on the shelf and turning around, 'and if I want to have my ears pierced I will. It has taken me fourteen years to realize that most of the time you don't know what you are talking about. You are so forceful that people assume you are right and don't question what you say. I am doing what I want to for a change.' 'You could bore holes in your ears with an ice pick for all I care,' I said, finishing my granola. 'I'm going outside and shovel the drive.' 'Don't be an ass,' Vicki said, 'You'll hurt your back. Then you will be sorry.' 'Not so sorry as you will be when your earlobes rot off,' I said, standing up and putting on my gloves; 'anyway if my back goes out, you'll have to nurse me, and I guarantee I won't be an easy patient, especially if you mutilate yourself.'
For fifty minutes shoveling was easy. Then pain ran down my back though my legs, and I fell over beside the driveway. I had cleaned most of the drive, and to show Vicki that power not sound buttressed my words I determined to finish shoveling. I turned myself into a ball pulling my knees to my chest. Then thrusting my feet out slowly, I inched across the drive. When I got close to the remaining lumps of snow, I pushed the shovel across the asphalt and slid the blade between the road and the snow, almost as if I were slipping a loose sheet of paper into the middle of a report. Once the blade was out of sight, I rotated the handle of the shovel from right to left in order to loosen the snow. Then after pulling the blade free from the mound of snow, I scraped the handle along the ground in a half-circle. When the blade reached my feet and the border of the drive, I turned it on edge and dumped out the snow. Finishing the rest of the drive took thirty-five minutes. Three hours later I was on the fifth step of the stairs, seven steps below the landing. My left elbow was on the fourth step, my right on the sixth. Vicki leaned against me from below pushing while the children pulled from above.
I stayed in bed six days. Every time I moved, my back hurt, and the thought of crawling into the bathroom brought tears to my eyes, so I stopped eating. Vicki had her ears pierced and steel studs stuck into the holes, but I did not notice. After the excitement of getting me upstairs passed, the children ignored me, preferring to play in the snow with George the dachshund. During my second day in bed not a child spoke to me until Vicki made them tell me good-night at eight-thirty in the evening. As a child when I was sick, I listened to the Breakfast Club on the radio and Mother spoon-fed me bowls of chocolate ice cream and read the Hardy Boys stories to me. In Connecticut I felt sorry for myself, and I longed to be back in Tennessee, with the hardy boys and girls with whom I grew up, all those children who were my friends before I knew what a friend was.
As I lay in bed not simply my childhood seemed buried beneath a smothering blanket of years and distance. Early in December I read John Sheldon Reed's collection of essays about southern matters entitled Whistling Dixie. 'Daddy,' Francis said, seeing the book in my hands, 'What's Dixie?' At dinner the next night Edward said that he probably would not marry, explaining that he had not met anyone in Storrs he wanted to marry. 'Don't worry, Edward,' I said, 'when the time comes for you to marry, I will ship you to Tennessee, and my friends there will find a wife for you.' 'Oh, no!' Edward exclaimed, 'I would feel funny around all those southerners.'
On the morning of the third day, however, I received a telephone call. A writer for the Hartford Courant wondered if I still wanted junior put after my name, 'now,' the man said, 'that your father is dead.' 'Drop the junior,' I declared wiggling my toes and not feeling much pain, 'it's time for a new me.' Suddenly I smiled, remembering something Eliza said on Christmas Eve. 'What would you do if you found us hiding downstairs tonight waiting for Santa to see if he is real?' she asked, quickly adding, 'we are not really going to do it, but what would you do?' Eliza's remarks often cheer me, and I recalled what she said when she came down for breakfast the morning I shoveled the drive. After kissing me she stared at my face, narrowing her eyes and wrinkling the flesh around her cheekbones. 'Daddy,' she asked, 'when I get old are my nostrils going to be full of hair like yours?' 'No, Eliza,' I though as I lay in bed, 'you won't have an oriental rug in your nose. What you will get is a letter like the one Francis received yesterday.' Atop a stack of mail on the bedside table was a letter from the United States Achievement Academy, congratulating Francis on winning 'a National Science Merit' award and inviting him to have his 'personal biography printed in the appropriate volume of the United States Achievement Academy National Awards Yearbook.' For $32.95 plus $7 for processing, handling, and shipping, Francis would receive an eight-by-ten-inch 'commemorative certificate suitable for framing' and the yearbook, which included not only his 'biography' but his photograph, one of the family's choosing. For the retiring student who did not want his picture printed, the certificate and the book, complete with biography, were available for $28.95, plus, of course, the $7 handling fee. If a child did not wish to purchase the yearbook but still wanted his biography and picture to appear in the volume the cost was $9.95. No charge was made to the student who merely filled out the biographical sheet. Such students, the Academy assumed, were rarities, writing, 'Your parents, grandparents, other family members and friends may want their own copy of the book in which you appear.' For two copies, complete with biography, pictures, and one certificate, the handling was waived and the charge was $74.95. 'Because this award is of significance to your entire community, the Academy,' the flyer stated, 'will prepare a news release for your local newspapers, school newspapers, and broadcast stations announcing your USAA award. This release will be sent directly to you so that you can control its distribution to news outlets you yourself select.' 'Recognition by the Academy of our Nation's outstanding young people is an important contribution to America,' declared a former president of Morehead State University. Four or five times a year commerce recognizes my little doings and creates a distribution of honorific words in order to pick my pocket for a yearbook. I have never purchased a book, not even one of red letter ones with gold lettering. Still the flyer interested me, and before balling it up and pitching it over the edge of the dresser in hopes of swishing a domestic three-pointer into the waste can, I skimmed the biographical chart. What achivements, I wondered, did the Academy deem worthy of recognition. The chart listed one hundred and ninety-three possible achievements. Students could chose up to eight for their biography, including among others, Pom Pom Squad, Freshman Class Historian, Powder Puff Football, Model UN, Weight-Lifting, Civic Air Patrol, Karate, Leo Club, Twirler, Betty Crocker Award, and Future Business Leaders of America. 'What should I do, Daddy,' Francis said, seeing me reading the list, 'I just make good grades.' 'Do this,' I said, crumpling the flyer and taking a set shot from the prone position. I missed the waste can, but I took two more shots, missing the first with a postcard assuring me I had won an 'all-expenses paid two week holiday in Hawaii' but making the second with a letter informing me that either a motion-picture camera, a set of luggage, or a new Chrysler was mine, just for calling an eight-hundred number.
Francis was not the only family member to have his achievement recognized. Although I did not win an award, I received a prestigious nomination, or so a mass-produced letter on the bedside table informed me. 'Dear Princetonian,' the letter began, 'You were recently nominated for consideration as a candidate to stand for election for Alumni trustee this coming spring. The Committee has met twice and concluded its deliberations. I am sorry to say that your name was not selected for further consideration this time around. Your name will be kept in our active file for two more years, so you will again be considered without having to be nominated. Each year,' the letter continued, 'the Committee receives several hundred nominations for just six slots on the two slates. It's a formidable task to choose from among such an outstanding group of talented and successful Princetonians. The University is indeed fortunate, and I wish that we could have had better news for you this year. In the meantime, on behalf of the Committee let me thank you for participating in the process. Your continued interest and support are much appreciated.' Because I did not know about the nomination until I received the letter, participation in the process was simple, about as simple as balling up the piece of paper and trying to kiss a high one off the mirror above my dresser, and into the waste can.
The first two nights I was down pain woke me in the middle of the night. Falling asleep again was difficult, and the first night I spent early morning hours in a sour mood, chewing over remarks that recently provoked mental indigestion. Statements made by an acquaintance at Thanksgiving bit into my palate. 'You just can't get anything with two bedrooms,' she said, 'for less than a million dollars.' 'Park Avenue,' she gushed, a sip of wine later, 'has become such a family neighborhood.' Full of silly, alkaline compliments for me and mine the mail, however, drove the acid out of my system and so sweetened the second night that when I awoke I quickly fell back asleep. At dawn I woke up again, not because of pain, though, but laughter. 'Are you all right,' Vicki exclaimed, hearing me chuckling and sitting upright in the bed. 'You are not choking, are you?' 'I'm fine,' I said; 'I dreamed about your earlobes and that gave me indigestion and made me choke. But I've recovered, for the moment at least.' Although just a pillow away Vicki's ears were far from my mind. What I really dreamed about was Cousin Katherine and her forty-five-year-old daughter Ann. In the dream Ann lay in a knot on the floor, her arms extended above her head and wrapped around a table leg, a bowed leg with an old-fashioned claw and ball foot. When Ann grasped the leg, Katherine pushed her around it. Soon Ann spun rapidly around the leg making thumping noises, the sound resembling a worn belt whirling around a flywheel in the motor of a car. Atop the table sat four china figurines: a green lion wearing red boots, two frogs sprouting yellow wings, and a blue turtle winking a gold eye. Although Ann's activity tickled me, it did not interest the menagerie, and they remained silent and aloof, too dignified to glance at the human clattering around the floor just two and a half feet below them.
The next morning I decided to read until the mail arrived, and I began M.F.K. Fisher's The Gastronomical Me . Alas, her spicy accounts of dining across Europe were too rich for that bedridden me determined not to eat. Saving Fisher for a time when my back was well and I would not have to pick my way through hours a la carte, I asked Vicki to bring me the catalogue I had just received from Forestry Suppliers in Jackson, Mississippi. Four hundred and thirty-two pages long, the catalogue contained much I coveted: Heavy-duty brush cutters, thirty-four inches long and weighing seven and a quarter pounds and then 'Gator Chaps' and 'Wire Mesh snake proof Leggings.' When I read the cagalogue, I amost bought a Victor Tin Cat Repeating Mouse Trap. Hordes of mice colonize the attic in winter and gnaw into my imagination, so short-circuiting reason that sometimes my fire alarm goes off and I wake up in the night thinking I smell smoke. Certain that mice have chewed through electric wires behind the walls, I roam the house sniffing the air. I am preternaturally alert, ready to race into the children's rooms, pull them from their beds, and throwing them across my shoulders bound downstairs and out into the dark before the house dissolves into a blue whoosh of flame.
During the day sentiment dissolves my chilly nightime fears. Along the shelves of Eliza's room the lamb dozes alongside the lion, and cat and mouse frolic together. After reading the description in the catalogue, I knew the Tin Cat would not be welcome at our house. 'Multiple catch trap will hold up to 30 mice. No poisons, bait or resetting required,' the description read, 'trap is constructed of heavy-gauge galvanized steel with hinged lid and can be immersed in water for disposal of mice.' Although the description put a damper on my desire for mouse traps, my back was better, and I was in an up, buying mood. During fall deerjackers roam the university woods, disregarding 'No Hunting' signs. One man even raised a hunting platform in the very tree on which police posted a sign. The woods are popular, and families wander them throughout the year. By ignoring the signs hunters don't just break the law; they endanger lives. And so I decided to buy a Buck knife, the 'Bowie-style' with a seven and a half inch blade and weighing one and a quarter pounds. Raised by a series of heavy ropes and pulleys, the hunting platforms in the woods were temporary. Although I had tried to fell platforms in the past, I was not successful. With a Buck knife I could slice through the ropes and drop the platforms. I ordered a Buck knife, but by the time it arrived deer season was over. Still, once my back was healthy, I strapped the knife to my belt and went platform hunting. Although I did not destroy any platforms, I wasn't disappointed, for accompanying the knife was a gamy leaflet. 'The fantastic growth of Buck Knives, Inc., was no accident,' the leaflet explained; 'From the beginning, management determined to make God the Senior Partner. In a crisis, the problem was turned over to Him, and He hasn't failed to help us with the answer.' 'What do you think,' I said after reading the statement to Vicki. 'The Senior Partner sure took care of you, Samson,' Vicki said; 'nobody but a fool would think about chopping people out of trees.'
When I first went down in the back, I tried to pass time by making up stories. Conclusions eluded me though, and I didn't get far. I spent hours thinking about a man who drank too much eggnog on Christmas Eve and fell out drunk in his driveway where the UPS truck, making a last-minute delivery, ran over him and killed him. I brewed the eggnog, buying the rum, bourbon, and brandy, beating the egg whites and whipping the heavy cream. I planted hemlock along the drive and churned up a squall that sprinkled the man with snow, just like confectioner's sugar, the man thought, opening his mouth to catch a flake just before the truck flattened him. What I could not do was decide what the truck was delivering. Nothing seemed right, not even the 'Sunshine Assortment' from Harry and David or a four-layer chocolate peanut butter cake from Swiss Colony.
'Never Sharpen' a Buck knife 'on a power-driven grinding wheel,' the junior partners warned. Use a honing stone, they urged, and move the blade in an 'even circular stroke.' Harry and David were the stuff of power-driven stories. In trying to give my take a sharp, contemporary edge, I dulled the narrative, and so after I ordered the Buck knife, I pulled a handful of familiar characters out of the past and turned them slowly over the familiar grit of Carthage, Tennessee. From a butcher in Lebanon Hink Ruunt bought a coat rack of aged hams and sold them out of his barn. When Loppie Groat returned his ham, saying it had gone bad, Hink protested. 'You must have cooked it wrong, Loppie. There ain't nothing wrong with this ham. Why it was only cured last week.' 'Maybe,' Loppie said looking Hink hard in the eye before spitting into a milk carton, 'Maybe so, but it's done a relapse.' Hink was a notorious miser. Four or five spindly trees of Arkansas black apples grew at the edge of his pasture. 'I got a hankering for apples,' Derma Tureen, his second wife, said to him one day, 'and I think I'll go down to the grove and pick a handful.' 'That's all right,' Hink said, 'but don't you pull any except the bad ones, the ones the worms have got to.' 'Supposing there aren't any bad ones, Hink,' Derma said, putting on her bonnet. 'Well, then you'll just have to wait until some of them go bad,' Hink answered; 'we can't afford to eat apples that's worth eight, maybe nine cents a pound.'
Like many tight-fisted people Hink forever came up with schemes to make money. Each spring when the residents from the school for the afflicted in Buffalo Valley visited Carthage, he staged an exhibition in his barn and charged the poor souls five cents to enter. One year he penned up a deer and after painting the unfortunate creature white hung a sign on the barn reading, 'See The Unicorn With Two Horns.' In a stall next to the deer were a goose and her goslings. Nailed to the rafter above the stall was a piece of cardboard on which Hink wrote, 'See The Amazing Goose What Can Suckle Eleven Goslings.' Near the cesspool one May he buried an ancient chipped hatchet. The next spring he dug it up, and wiring it to the wall, so, as he explained, 'it couldn't be stole,' claiming it was the hatchet with which George Washington chopped down the cherry tree. Although residents at the home weren't up to much history, most had heard of Washington, so Hink made Washington a specialty. In Nashville once, Hink obtained the skull of a monkey. No one ever knew where Hink got the skull--although LaBelle Watrous who went to Nashville on the same day as Hink to see about her adenoids said that while she was waiting to see the doctor she looked out the hospital window. 'And, Lord help me,' she recounted, 'down there behind the Vanderbilt Medical School a man about Hink's size and figure was rooting through the bins. Every once in a while he'd stuff something into a brown paper sack. But whether he was putting in big toes or monkeys' heads, I just couldn't for the life of me tell you.' Be this as it may, however, Hink had a shiny white skull, and that spring he exhibited it, declaring it was Washington's skull. 'Hink,' Turlow Gutheridge said when he saw the skull, 'you've gone too far this time. This skull is small, and I've read that Washington had an extraordinarily large head.' 'Oh, Mr. Gutheridge, you are right. Washington did have a big head,' Hink said not batting an eye, 'but this here is the skull he had when he was a little boy.'
Hink had the misfortune to pay funeral expenses for seven wives. Under such a succession of financial blows most misers would have buckled and dropped their coin purses at least once. Hink was made of more penurious stuff. Whe she was dying, Derma Tureen asked Hink to send her body back to Morgan County, to her hometown, Sunbright, so she could be buried in her family plot. 'I know it's a lot to ask, Hink,' she gasped, 'but I couldn't stand to be buried here in Carthage among all these strangers.' 'Honey,' Hink replied, 'it is a lot to ask, but you've been a good wife to me, and I want to be fair, so I'll tell you what we're going to do. We'll just try you here in the graveyard in Carthage and see how you like it. If you don't lie quiet, then I'll move you to Sunbright.'
Vicki does not like my stories. After I tell her one or two in bed, she generally buries her head under the pillow and won't remove it until I stop talking. Although pillows are soft, they can seem hard when one's earlobes are tender, and during the last nights of my convalescence I had my narrative way with Vicki, introducing her to the linguistic delights of Loppie Groat. One afternoon when Loppie and Googoo Hooberry were fishing at Dunphy's Pond, Loppie saw a man sitting on the back of a Hereford. 'Googoo,' he said, 'look at that fellow riding a cow.' 'That ain't a cow,' Googoo said, squinting into the sun, 'that's a bull.' 'The hell, you say,' Loppie responded, 'that's a cow. It know it's a cow by his teats.' Loppie was no fool, and he realized that his remarks occasionally strained the patience of people like Vicki. 'It's not for want of ignorance that I speak nonsense,' he once told Turlow Gutheridge. That same day he explained why he did not own a dog. 'Turlow,' he said, 'I never saw a man what had a dog that didn't get to bragging about him sometime, and that's the very reason I don't have a dog. I haven't got no gift of bragging.' On hearing that Royce Farquarson got decapitated in an accident at the sawmill, Loppie was silent for a moment before he spoke. 'Royce's head won't no great shakes of a head, but still,' he said, 'I guess it was a sad loss to him.'
When I finished this last story, Vicki did not say a word. She just stared at me. 'I can see,' I said, 'that the tale has left you speechless in admiration. Well, you have not heard anything yet.' When Vicki shut then opened her eyes, the pupils resembling pools of quicksand, I forged ahead. In Ankerrow's Cafe one lunch time, I began, Loppie grabbed Ennion Proctor's toothpick and started digging at this teeth. Turlow saw Loppie pick up the toothpick and nudging him whispered, 'Loppie, I beg your pardon but you are using Ennion's toothpick.' 'Great God, Turlow!' Loppie exclaimed, turning toward him, 'don't you know me. This is your friend Loppie. I ain't going to steal the toothpick. As soon as I get through using it, I'm going to return it.' At the end of the story Vicki was stone-faced, and I started laughing. I kicked the covers off my legs, and leaping out of bed began hopping around the room. Not until Vicki reminded me did I remember my back. The pain was almost gone, and the next morning I ate a big breakfast, in honor, I told Vicki, of my buddy Loppie.
For another week my back stayed tender, and I remained hobbled, close to home. Still both life and I were looking up. Instead of being power-driven by the grinder of commerce and false compliment, the mail turned joyous and personal. From Alabama a grandfather who read one of my books sent Eliza a recipe for lemon squares. 'I think she will enjoy trying it,' he wrote; 'I keep copies in my wallet to give to children about her age.' 'I'd like to meet you the next time you are in my neighborhood,' a lawyer wrote from Richmond, 'we could eat at the Smoky Pig in Ashland. The Pig isn't listed in any guide to fine restaurants. All you can find there are cole slaw, barbecue, hush puppies, and people who talk--these last occasionally stretching the truth but somehow still managing to circle around and embrace it in the end.' 'So that you will know what is on the minds of your readers I am enclosing a slip of paper I found in one of your books in the Gainesville Library,' a man wrote from Florida. Three inches wide and five inches tall, the paper was pink. Written neatly in pencil across the top of the side was 'take chicken out of freezer.'
Small things bring me much joy, more joy, I sometimes think, than the ornate and carefully planned. I roam the university library, rummaging shelves, searching for stories about my fictional buddies in Carthage. Folded between pages 54 and 55 of the first volume of 'The Centennial Edition' of Rowland E. Robinson's Works, published in 1933 by the Tuttle Company of Rutland, Vermont, was a piece of green notepaper measuring four by six inches. Printed in thick letters across the top of the paper were the words 'a hasty little note.' At the bottom hung a checkerboard border, five-eighths of an inch wide and resembling oilcloth sliced from a kitchen table. In the middle of the paper was a note written but not mailed on 31 December 1933, by Mary Titcomb from her home at '1 Maple Street, Sanford, Maine.' 'Dear Mr. Henderson,' the note began, 'I thank you very much for the book you gave me this Christmas. I got many nice presents. I got a ski suit, skates, a geography globe, hankies and a pocket book. I wish you a very happy New Year.' My heart leaped up when I read the note. What I found mattered not to the great world. For me, though, Mary's Christmas was important, and the dusty shelves bloomed with poinsettias and carols rang like clear water through silent corridors.
Until my back was completely healed I did not stretch my tether farther than the library. Instead of going to their offices people who wanted to see me visited the house. One morning a reporter from a foreign newspaper came. She arrived at 10:04 and left that afternoon at 1:26, making her visit three hours and twenty-two minutes long. She drank a cup of black coffee and ate a blueberry muffin and two Pepperidge Farm cookies, one of them a Lido, the other an Orleans. During the interview the woman went to the lavatory three times, a fact that broke down into one tee-tee every sixty-seven minutes and twenty seconds. When I feel good, I play with numbers, and as I kept track of my interviewer's doings, I know my back was practically mended. That afternoon in the mail I received a videotape. An acquaintance sent it, stating in an accompanying letter that he was sure I would find the video 'provocative.' In the tape a 'futurist' preached about commerce. The message was clear: To remain competitive 'in the global marketplace' a business had to foster originality and flexibility. Instead, however, of simply stating that creativity should be encouraged, the futurist declared businesses should expand their paradigms. Paradigm is not a word that trips lightly from my tongue or the tongues of my friends. In the tape the futurist mutilated the definition of paradigm, then painfully drilled the word through my earlobes, using it ninety-two times in a thirty-eight minute lecture, for a average of 2.42 paradigms every minute or one paradigm every 24.8 seconds.
I don't have deep thoughts about education. I simply cope with what life thrusts at me. In the interview the woman forever raised 'meaningful issues.' A school board in New York City, she recounted, had recently fired a school superintendent becaused he insisted that elementary schools teach positive lessons about homosexual as well as heterosexual families. Did I, she asked, think schools ought to teach such lessons. 'The homosexual family,' I said, taking a deep breath and praying that the oxygen would flood my brain, 'is but one configuration of that larger social entity, the alternative family. Here in Mansfield,' I said, 'there are many alternative families. I know several, all of whom have children. In that white house down at the corner,' I said, gesturing vaguely toward a side window, 'is a family consisting of two men, five women, and a bunch of children. I am not sure of the exact number of children,' I added as the woman's eyes widened and her pencil moved rapidly. 'One of the women, as you might guess, is often heavy with child, and so the number varies. Down the street is a very pleasant Episcopal family of three men, two women, and four children. Episcopalians don't breed so irresponsibly as other groups, and from what I understand the number of children in this family will not increase. On the other hand,' I continued, 'a very strong Catholic family consisting of six or seven women and a varying number of men lives just across the South Eagleville Road. Because all members of the family are orthodox and refuse to practice birth control, the number of whelps is extraordinary. In the spring they scamper across the highway like squirrels. Occasionally one is mushed and sent back to his maker, but, no matter, he is soon replaced. Thus,' I said in summary, 'you can see that the number of configurations that alternative families can assume is immense. To teach children about all the existing variations in just this small community would fill the entire academic year and probably rupture the educational system. Until the school year is expanded and July and August are strapped like trusses onto the calendar, perhaps teachers should, for the time being at least, concentrate their pedagogical energies on lesser matters, say, such thing as reading and arithmetic.'
More often than not topics though profound are simply reflections of low current events, reconstituted and lingustically elevated but low events nonetheless. Recently blather over the military and sexual matters has cluttered column yards on front pages. Shortly after the interviewer left, Josh visited me. Josh believes that the military is beneath sexual concern, and he thinks debate over soldiers' hormones moronic. Josh does not hover over his opinions like a mother hen. Resembling a starling on a bird feeder, he rakes his mind through controversy, spreading his bill and pushing ideas about like millet and cracked wheat. 'How would you like to take a shower with a homosexual,' an economist recently asked him in the locker room. 'Heterosexual, homosexual, that does not matter just so long as the man belongs to my social class,' Josh retorted; 'I couldn't bear to shower with someone from a lower class. You never know what will happen with inferior people. Rarely can they be relied upon to behave decently.'
Josh's visits always stir dyspeptic thoughts, and the best palliative for them is a walk in the woods. My back no longer hurt, and the next morning after breakfast I went for a long purging walk. Flocks of house finches and juncos gathered at backyard feeders, ebbing and flowing with alarm and hunger. Nuthatches ran up and down trees, digging into blisters for insects. Titmice and chickadees skittered through the scrub while woodpeckers scratched along limbs--downy, hairy, and red-bellied. A blue jay gargled and squawked, and a pair of cardinals perched on bittersweet. White-throated sparrows huddled in forsythia, and English sparrows squatted on drainpipes, turning their eyes along sidewalks, searching for tasty bits of litter. A mockingbird crouched on a bramble hedge looking as knowing as a gypsy. Amid blackberry canes west of Unnamed Pond a goose lay dead. A bone in the upper part of the bird's left wing was splintered, and the goose was probably a cripple. Wounded by a hunter hiding in the brush atop Bean Hill, the goose rode the air across the highway and pond before breaking and tumbling to the ground. One foot of the goose was pointed and tightly pinched. The black leathery skin rolled in folds like ridges of fingers, and the foot resembled the shadowy head of a duck plastered to a bedroom wall, a figure shaped by a child's raising a hand into a beam of light. During the walk I found several broken things: a smashed pink toilet, a bloated raccoon, and then a pigeon downed by a hawk, kernels of corn ripped from the bird's craw and scattered like yellow bits of tile amid an insulation of gray feathers.
As I looked at the goose the pond grunted and snapped. Unlike the bird the pond was alive, gasps of air rising through buckles of ice and then from below throaty abdominal rumblings. Because the day was quiet I noticed sounds: George's dog tags tinkling in the cold, his feet small drumsticks pattering across the rind snow, then down the ridge behind the sheep barns, small creeks running like tinfoil. Late in the afternoon a breeze hurried across the ridge. Branches clacked together. Afterward knuckles of ice fell and shivering across the frozen snow rang like harpsichords. Green against the gray rocks of a ledge were Christmas and marginal wood fern, common polypody, Alpine woodsia, and rock cap fern. A pink plastic ribbon dangled from a bird's nest twelve feet off the ground. Sunlight shined through the bark of yellow birches, turning the shreds pale gold. The trees themselves resembled rolls of linen, long forgotten in attics but now pulled out into the day and tattered in the process. The nests of fall web worms unraveled like socks at the tips of branches. Winter creeper changed bare branches into lively bushes, making me forget the season for a moment and imagine spring.
The Fenton River was high. On the hemlocks growing along the banks snow hardened and became heavy, pushing the lower branches into the water. Ice formed on the limbs decorating them with pearly knobs and trains of sharp-cut lace. A gray and white hunting cat picked a silent path through brambles. A kingfisher swooped over a pool in the river. A short-tailed vole bustled into sight, and darting across a patch of ice vanished down a hole in the snow. When George and I walked across the frozen beaver pond to the lodge, a yearling beaver clambered up the air vent and growled at us. I stayed in the woods until early evening. At dusk three mallards flew fast overhead, their wings rising and falling in a rhythmic beat and whistle. The moon rose low and full and burned a cold yellow hole through the blue night. I turned home, and as the moon climbed high, a green halo melted around it, softening the sky and candying the hills.
I was now well out of bed and little aside from a snow shovel could topple me, not even a rushed, overnight trip to Chicago. I left Connecticut late one Thursday afternoon in order to deliver a speech Friday morning. Once my back healed, appetite returned, and I finished The Gastronomical Me. Traveling often makes me imagine myself sophisticated, and at dinner in Chicago I decided to become a culinary voluptuary, similar to M.F.K. Fisher, or if not quite that, at least to keep track of what I munched. I began my meal with Bruschatta Caponata, a 'Garlic Rusk with a Medley of Warm Eggplant, Tomato, Fresh Basil, and Pinenuts.' For the main course I ate 'Grilled Medallions of Swordfish'; for dessert, Tiramisu, 'Lady Fingers soaked in Espresso with Mascarpone Cheese Filling and Chocolate with Vanilla Sauce.' For good measure I tossed down two glasses of wine, the first white and the second red. Alas, at the end of the meal juices of digestion did not waft me aloft to bed and the poetic sleep of the satisfied. Instead my innards groaned like Unnamed Pond, and I staggered from the restaurant feeling as if I were stuffed with bird shot. Much as a wild goose should be soaked in milk to remove the fishy taste from its flesh so I needed to wander soft hours to purge biliousness from body and mind.
The second stop on the Women's Professional Billiards Tour, The Chicago Classic, was being played in my hotel. Never had I seen men play billiards, much less women, so I bought a ticket. For two hours I watched the tournament, basting myself with Coca-Cola in hopes of reducing dinner to a simmer. In two rows of six each twelve Kasson game tables filled the Chicago Ballroom. Nine feet long with grayish Formica sides, the pool tables resembled chunky tubs, stored so long outside a warehouse that rainwater filled them, allowing algae to grow across their surfaces in furry green mats. Over the tables hung racks of white imitation Tiffany lamps. Suspended above the lamps were two cords resembling clothes lines. Nine Styrofoam balls were strung along each line. All the balls were white except the fifth one in each line, which was orange. Whenever a competitor won a game, she reached up with her cue and pushed a ball from left to right along the line. In order to win a match one had to win nine games. By looking for the orange balls spectators could tell the progress of a match. Larded with ropes of glass and bulb six chandeliers hung heavily from the ceiling and threw so much light over the room that it seemed to gather in corners like silt. Tacked to walls flags advertised Marshall Field's, Chris's Billiards, Muddler's Pool Room, Huebler 'The World's Finest Cues,' and McDemott Cue Manufacturing of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
People watching the matches spoke in whispers, and aside from the bang and metallic slap of pool balls, the room was silent. Once or twice I shut my eyes and imagined myself on the shore in Nova Scotia, the sound of racks jostling balls agains each other reminding me of stones pulled down a beach by undertow. The players dressed similarly, many wearing loose dark trousers, white blouses and black vests. Most players were slender, and when they leaned across tables to shoot they resembled grasshoppers, their legs bent and flexed at the edge of flight. To hold their cues they twisted their fingers into arthritic knots. After shooting they turned the table over to opponents, and sitting in stiff chairs poured glasses of ice water. Usually they did not watch opponents' shots; instead they gazed into space. Although competitors occasionally smiled at each other, they rarely talked, at least not while their match was going on. Most spectators were family members or officials, editors of Pool and Billiard magazine, or, for example, representatives of sponsoring organizations, most prominently Kasson Game Tables. A few lone men wandered the room. Most were pudgy and middle-aged and wearing leather jackets seemed to think they were younger than their years. As I watched them I remembered something Turlow Gutheridge said to Hink Ruunt when he heard about one of Hink's schemes for making money. 'How dreadful,' Turlow exclaimed, 'a man at your time of life behaving in his manner.' 'Mr. Gutheridge,' Hink responded, 'I ain't a man of my time of life.'
After two hours, I, on the other hand, felt old and went to bed. At breakfast the next morning M.F.K. Fisher did not come to mind, and I chopped a banana over a bowl of granola. The company to which I spoke managed over a hundred business associations, among others, the World Airline Entertainment Association, The Popcorn Institute, the American Association of Women Dentists, and the Cremation Association of North America. On my mentioning of this last group to a company employee, she responded, 'Oh, yes, death care is a lively field.' Like a cue ball slamming through the foot-spot the woman's remark stated a carom of words. Slubey Garts would never let a paradigm grow weedy under his feet, I suddenly thought. He would be aware of the commercial possibilities of death care. That afternoon I did not need the World Airline Association to make the flight home entertaining. Instead I amused myself, polishing an account of Slubey's sharp dealings. Haskins was the biggest funeral home in Smith County, and the day after Luburl Haskins was buried, Pearline his widow sold the home to Slubey and started packing for Florida, where, as Turlow Gutheridge put it, 'she could grieve in a little more comfort.' Luburl was a gloomy man, and Pearline hankered for gaity. 'You have no idea how I regret to see you wearing these habiliments of woe,' Judge Rutherford said to her at graveside. 'You can't be as sad as I am,' Pearline answered, reaching up to flick an inchworm off her veil, the diamonds on her fingers sparkling in the sunlight. 'I look worse in black than any other color.'
Before he planted any of the gospel brethren, Slubey refurbished the funeral home. He bought a big rock in Crab Orchard and drilled a hole into it, turning the rock into a fountain by running a length of hose through the hole and attaching one end to a sink in the basement. He set the fountain in the entrance hall; on the wall above he fixed a plaque reading, 'The Rock in Horeb.' Next he hired Isom Legg to paint the ceiling of the chapel. A coal dealer in Orphan's Friend, Isom was a competent craftsman, good enough to paint signs on the sides of barns urging tourists to chew Bull of the Woods Tobacco and to see Ruby Falls and Rock City. However he was not an artist. Although he tried to follow Slubey's instructions and paint Moses on Pisgah being shown the Land of Gilead by the Lord, he wasn't entirely successful. Pisgah looked like Battery Hill, just outside Carthage, and Moses was cross-eyed and had a swollen red nose, bearing a striking resemblance to Isom's sometime drinking companion Hiram Povey. As for the Lord, Isom painted Him as a dove, replacing His wings with hands, the fingers of which were extraordinarily long, the middle finger of the left hand running from the center of the chapel roof over the choir stalls to end in a sharp nail pointing at the altar. On the Lord's right hand the middle finger was shorter and stubbier; still it stretched from the middle of the roof almost to the lentil above the entrance. Hiram was recognizable, but the Lord puzzled some viewers. When Proverbs Goforth first saw Him, he exclaimed, 'Great God Almighty, what a big hen!' In the vacant lot next door to the funeral home Slubey dug a pond. After dumping in a tub of goldfish and planting 'bible flowers' along the shore, day lilies and jonquils, Slubey set benches around the pont and erected a sign reading 'The Fishpool in Heshbon.' From a mail order house in Arkansas he bought an ornamental gondola. When Slubey told Proverbs he planned to buy a gondola, the deacon reacted enthusiastically, urging him to purchase two saying, 'They might breed.' Proverbs was a cistern deep with advice. After the ploughing season was over, Slubey, the deacon suggested, should rent Jeddry, Loppie Groat's mule, tie him to a stake near the pond, and hand a sign on his back saying, 'Balaam's Ass, Jehovah's Symbol.'
Slubey's most successful improvement was the marquee he erected over the front door. Whenever someone was 'in residence waiting for the embrace of the Lord,' as Proverbs expressed it, Slubey put his name on the marquee in capital letters, full names, too, no matter how long, 'not just no middle initial,' Proverbs bragged. When business was slack and the chapel vacant, Slubey publicized local events, reminding neighbors of the dance at the Elks Club or the Eastern Star's bake and book sale. When the high school basketball team played in the state tournament in Nashville, he printed 'Go Owls' on the marquee. Unfortunately one of the Mrs. Ruunts died suddenly, and Slubey was forced to change the marquee before the tournament ended, and Carthage lost in the semi-finals to Lenoir City, a team they had beaten handily earlier in the season. Slubey's civic concern brought rewards. In a ceremony at the Male and Female Select School, just two years after he bought the funeral home, hew as made 'Knight of the Upper Cumberland' and was awarded his shield and two swords crossed.
Not all the members of Slubey's Tabernacle of Love approved of his success, and when he buried the fifth Mrs. Ruunt on a Sunday, a small part of the congregation accused him of 'profaning the Sabbath Day for the merchandise of silver.' When Slubey refused, as the dissenters put it, 'to set his standard again toward Zion,' they broke away and formed the Church of the Chastening Rod. Slubey, their spokesman said, 'had forsaken the stream of living waters. Gadding about with Methodists he had trimmed his ways to seek fame.' Proverbs Goforth told people that the breakaways were foolish, and he expected they would soon drape themselves with sheets and 'take up serpents.' For his part Slubey said that although he expected the breakaways to harvest a heap of sorrow, he did not think they would be misguided enough to handle reptiles. 'Or if they did,' he reckoned, 'it wouldn't be nothing more than fence lizards, Jimmy Bullard's box of toads, and then on special occasions like baptizings a big shiny rat snake.'
The secession disturbed Slubey more than he let on. A good religious name was better than precious ointment, and so he wrote his friend Pharaoh Parkus in Memphis, inviting him to hold a revival at the funeral home. 'Tinker the hearts and churn the sensoriums,' Slubey instructed, concluding his letter, 'May Jesus turn your intellect into a volcano and redden its lava and widen its mouth.' Pharaoh accepted the invitation and delivered a sermon that made Carthaginians forget Slubey's problems. 'You are all cavalry,' Pharaoh declared, 'galloping down rapids of mortality. The dewdrops of disease are bright on your foreheads, and your hearts are blacker than the tassels on the buggy of death. Only the artillery of Jesus loaded with Holy Shot can ticket you for glory and write your names in italics in the newspapers of Heaven.' 'Did you hear,' he said, 'about the woman in the hospital who was getting better when she died suddenly and the doctor said she died of improvements? Don't you improve. Stay as you are. You don't want to be strong enough to climb the parapet of Hell. Pray for wounds as resplendent as vermillion and odiferous as musk. Forsake the orgies of the kennel. Be a hero gnawed with rust and digested by insects but polished for glory.'
'You've done poured the water of gall over the Chastening Rod,' Proverbs said to Pharaoh at the end of the sermon, 'and I'll be blessed if it won't wither on the vine.' For my part I was not ready to assign the church to the Cremation Associaton. Still, Slubey had leaned on his Senior Partner, and the Senior Partner proved a stout champion. Pharaoh dulled the two-edged sword of Slubey's critics on a grinding wheel rough with grainy words. As a result death care remained on the cutting edge of Slubey's enterprises and at a gathering of the Knights held shortly after the revival, Slubey was awarded a pennon, two garlands, and a skull to accompany his shield and swords.
'Daddy,' Eliza said when I returned from Chicago, 'Koala has a surprise for you in your bedroom.' Eliza's stuffed koala sat on my pillow; propped open in from of him was Babar's Anniversary Album. 'Koala will read to you if your hurt your back again.' Dixie and childhood suddenly seemed very near. Unknowingly Eliza opened the Album to an illustration that had made me laugh as a child. While Babar and Queen Celeste were on their wedding trip in The Travels of Babar , Arthur, Babar's small cousin, started a war by tying a firecracker to the tail of Rataxes, king of the rhinoceroses. Until Babar returned from his trip, the war went poorly for the elephants. Babar realized the way to defeat Rataxes and his chief of staff General Pamir was not through force but craft. Accordingly Babar painted the tails of his largest soldiers red. Afterward he drew two huge black and white bull's eyes on the bottom of each soldier. While Babar painted, Arthur made green and red wigs. On the day of the battle, the faces of six monsters rose over the top of a hill terrifying the rhinoceroses. In the illustration the monsters stare from behind a yellow slope, their tails resembling carrots and their 'hair' tufts of crabgrass. In the foreground the rhinoceroses tumble over each other, rolling down the hill in clods trying to escape. 'This is wonderful, Eliza,' I said, squeezing her tightly and kissing her; 'Babar is an old friend.' The next morning was sunny. Spring seemed in the air, and I drove to the mall and bought Vicki a pair of earrings. The earrings have little honey bees on them. Vicki says they are 'sweet' and that she will wear them when her earlobes stop stinging.
Last Updated: 4/19/17